Iran attempts to silence its ‘Death to America’ chantsPosted: October 20, 2013
Chants of ‘Death to America’ have been part of Iranian public life for almost 35 years. But the new wave of politicians in Tehran is trying to change that, write Damien McElroy and Ahmad Vahdat
Damien McElroy, and Ahmad Vahdat report: An attempt by Iran‘s reformist president Hassan Rouhani to abolish the chant “Death to America” as part of his diplomatic drive to improve relations with the US and the West, has spurred an angry backlash among his country’s hardline establishment.
The slogan – “Marg bar Amrika” in Farsi – has rung out on official occasions in Tehran ever since the country’s Islamic revolution in 1979, born during the seizure by students of the US embassy and the 444-day hostage crisis that followed.
Beloved by hardliners, it became one of the unifying political messages of the regime and would be broadcast every Friday on national television and be echoed at many mosques after Friday prayers.
A national debate on the appropriateness of the chant erupted last month when reformist prayer leaders at the main Friday afternoon ceremonies in Tehran and other major cities told the congregations to hold their tongues.
Since it no longer fits so easily with the official outlook of a country whose president has telephone chats with President Barack Obama and wants the West to lift economic sanctions in return for nuclear concessions over Iran’s nuclear programme, there is a drive by Mr Rouhani and his allies to end its public use.
“We can stand against powers with prudence rather than with slogans,” Mr Rouhani said recently.
He won the backing of the most senior cleric in the city of Isfahan who called for a ban on the chant.
“‘Death to America’ is not a verse in the holy book of Koran and there is no logic in chanting it for ever,” Sheikh Mohammad Taghi Rahbar told the Ghanoon daily newspaper.
“Just like the slogan of ‘Death to Soviet Union’ that we used to chant in the old days, this chant of ‘Death to the US’ can be removed from our political gatherings.”
But Ahmad Khatami, a noted hardliner and leading ayatollah, publicly rebelled against the move. “As long as there is American evil in the world, this slogan will endure across the nation,” he said.
Meanwhile former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, a key supporter of Mr Rouhani’s attempts to achieve detente with the West, was sharply criticised after he said the chant was harmful to Iran’s national interests.
Hardliners accused him of “distorting” the “anti-American legacy” of Ayatollah Khomeini, the cleric who led the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah.
A high profile religious institution based in the holy city of Qom, the Centre for Preservation of Imam Khomeini’s Legacies, condemned Mr Rafsanjani’s comments.
And a former MP gave voice to the irritation many feel.
“‘Death to America’ has been the symbol of our freedom movement since the inception of Islamic Revolution,” said Emad Forough. “However, if we are forced to become pragmatist and abandon it, let’s not pretend that this chalice of poison in a cup of honey.”
The ferocity of the attacks on the president and his supporters spilled over last week into denunciations of Tehran’s attempt to keep secret the details of its negotiations with US an international diplomats in Geneva over its nuclear programme.
As leaks emerged of some elements of what was said to be the Iranian offer – including agreement to unannounced inspections of its nuclear facilities – there was disapproval of the tactic by Mohammad Zarif, Mr Rohani’s foreign minister.
“The idea of keeping secret the contents of the agreements in Geneva is suspicious and our team of negotiators must make them transparent to our public,” said Raja News, a website linked to the Revolutionary Guards.
But Mr Zarif hit back on his Facebook page.
“We have agreed that the contents of our talks to remain secret. But I am not worried about them being revealed. Our aim is to reach an agreement and avoid any propaganda or opportunist point scoring,” he said.
“As such I and my colleagues are prepared to bear with any propaganda pressure to make sure that the rights of our people are not compromised or damaged.”
Mr Zarif even accused his critics of being pawns of Iran’s enemies, saying that leaks in the media about possible concessions by Iran were invented.
“Some Western media sources have quoted ‘reliable Iranians’ about the details of the talks, and claimed to have accessed details of the negotiations,” he said.
“Allow me to put everyone’s mind at rest and tell you that I have read all these articles and they are nothing more than speculations and guesses.”
There are doubts among ordinary Iranians over the wisdom of conceding too much on the country’s nuclear programme, however.
An electrical engineer working on Tehran’s metro, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “I don’t support the government but I do support the nuclear programme. The American’s are hypocrites. All of our military expenditure is defensive and Israel and American have thousands of nuclear bombs.”